Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gibson, John (1790-1866)

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1183426Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 21 — Gibson, John (1790-1866)1890William Cosmo Monkhouse

GIBSON, JOHN (1790–1866), sculptor, son of a market gardener, was born at Gyffin, near Conway, in 1790. At the age of seven he drew geese and other animals on a slate from memory. When he was nine years old his parents removed to Liverpool, where a stationer named Tourmeau lent him drawings and casts to copy. At fourteen he was bound apprentice to Messrs. Southwell & Wilson, to learn cabinet-making, but after a year he preferred to learn wood-carving, and his indentures were altered accordingly. The next year he wished to be apprenticed to Messrs. Francis, at whose works he had seen carvings in marble. They employed Luge, afterwards Chantrey's head workman, and Gibson soon copied a head of Bacchus by him, and made his first attempt in marble by carving a small head of Mercury in his leisure hours. Messrs. Francis offered to pay his employers 70l. to cancel Gibson's indentures. On their refusal Gibson neglected his woodcarving, and vowed he would be sent to prison rather than continue it. In the end his stubbornness triumphed, and he was apprenticed to Messrs. Francis, where his work attracted the attention of William Roscoe, for whom he carved a bas-relief for a chimneypiece, and executed a cartoon of Satan and his Angels, both of which are now in the Roscoe Institution at Liverpool, together with a bust of Roscoe by Gibson. A bas-relief in Sefton Church to the memory of Mr. Blundell, and other of his early works, bear the name of Francis. At Liverpool he attended Dr. Vose's lectures on anatomy, and had access to Allerton and the collections of Roscoe, whose advice that ‘the Greek statue is nature in the abstract’ appears to have permanently influenced his art. Solomon D'Aguilar, his wife and his daughters, Mrs. Lawrence, and Mrs. Robinson were also very kind to him. Mrs. Robinson devoted herself to improving his mind, and was a constant friend and correspondent till her death in 1829. Through the D'Aguilars Gibson was introduced to John Kemble, who sat to him for a small bust, the only one ever taken of the actor. In 1816 he commenced to exhibit at the Royal Academy, sending two busts (one of H. Park, esq.), and ‘Psyche borne by Zephyrs’ (this is called a drawing in Redgrave's ‘Dictionary,’ but it is catalogued among the sculpture, and it is recorded in his life that Flaxman, who did not know Gibson, placed it in a good light). His last work in Liverpool was a mantelpiece for Sir John Gladstone, the father of Mr. W. E. Gladstone.

Gibson came to London in 1817, with introductions to Christie, the auctioneer, and to Brougham. Christie introduced him to Watson Taylor, who commissioned the bust of Roscoe, now in the Liverpool Institution, and busts of all his family, from himself and his wife down to the baby, ‘a little thing with no shape at all.’ Busts of two Master Watson Taylors were exhibited in 1817, the artist's address being still given as Liverpool in the Royal Academy Catalogue. A bust of Watson Taylor was exhibited in 1819.

Gibson had dreamed that he was carried by an eagle to Rome, and to Rome he determined to go, ‘if he went there on foot.’ He went thither, taking his unfinished bust of Roscoe with him, but not before he had been introduced to Fuseli, West, Flaxman, Blake, and Chantrey. He arrived on 20 Oct. 1817 in Rome, where he was received by Canova in the most generous manner. ‘I am rich,’ said the famous sculptor, ‘I am anxious to be of use to you in your art as long as you stay in Rome.’ From Canova he received his first instruction in the art of sculpture, working in the Italian's studio, and afterwards under him in the academy of St. Luke's. He also received instruction from Thorwaldsen, then living at Rome. He was at once admitted to the intimate society of these eminent sculptors, and naturally formed a high estimate of the advantage to a sculptor of a residence in Rome as the artistic capital of the world. His first original work in Rome was a ‘Sleeping Shepherd,’ life size, and his first commission was for the group of ‘Mars and Cupid’ now at Chatsworth. So inexperienced was he at this time (1819) that he asked the Duke of Devonshire only 500l. for it, though it cost the artist 520l. before it was finished in marble. To the years 1821–2 belong the ‘Psyche and Zephyrs,’ executed for Sir George Beaumont (for which he more wisely asked 900l.), and a bas-relief of ‘Hero and Leander’ for the Duke of Devonshire. In 1824 he executed his figure of ‘Paris’ for Watson Taylor, and the ‘Sleeping Shepherd Boy’ for Lord George Cavendish. ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ was ordered by Mr. Hyland in 1826, and transferred to Mr. Vernon, who left it to the nation. In the winter of the same year Sir Watkin Williams Wynn ordered the figure of ‘Cupid drawing his Bow,’ and in the following year the ‘Psyche and Zephyrs’ was at the Royal Academy, but Sir George Beaumont, who had ordered it, was dead. As Flaxman was also dead, and Chantrey rich and lazy, Gibson was again urged to go to London and ‘make his fortune,’ but he resolved to stay where he could do the best work without regard to fortune. He did not even visit England till 1844.

From 1827 to 1844 Gibson executed among other works a ‘Nymph untying her Sandal,’ for Lord Yarborough (exhibited 1831); a seated statue of Dudley North, his first portrait statue; ‘Cupid disguised as a Shepherd’ (exhibited 1837), for Sir John Johnstone, a very pretty figure, which was repeated eight times; ‘Cupid tormenting the Soul’ (exhibited 1839), for Lord Selsey, which he looked upon as one of his best works. He was persuaded that the god appeared to him and directed him to colour the statue. It was repeated for Mr. Yates and Mr. Holford, and the latter repetition was tinted. In 1833 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1838 a full member. In 1838 Mr. Henry Sandbach, with his wife, the granddaughter of William Roscoe, went to Rome. Mrs. Sandbach formed with him an elevating friendship, which lasted till her death in 1854. For her husband he executed his ‘Hunter and Dog,’ his most vigorous work ‘in the round,’ and ‘Aurora’ (exhibited 1847). For the ‘Hunter’ he had a very fine model ‘in the prime of youth,’ but in addition ‘went often to study the casts from the Elgin marbles.’

When Gibson came to London in 1844, he disapproved of the place inside the custom house at Liverpool, where it was proposed to place his colossal statue of Huskisson which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in that year. A previous statue of Huskisson in marble had been erected in the cemetery, and Mrs. Huskisson, another devoted friend, gave him a commission for a third, to be erected in the open area surrounding the building. The second marble statue is now at Lloyd's, Royal Exchange. While he was in England he was publicly entertained at Glasgow on the occasion of the erection of his statue of Kirkman Finlay [q. v.] in the Merchants' Hall, and he received the command of the queen to execute a statue of herself, and her permission to present a bust of her to Liverpool, to be placed in St. George's Hall, where is also his statue of George Stephenson. In the statue executed for the queen he for the first time ventured to introduce a little colour, tinting the diadem, sandals, and borders of drapery with blue, red, and yellow. For this departure from modern practice, the subject of much dispute then and since, he claimed the example of the Greeks, and at this time (1846) he wrote: ‘My eyes have now become so depraved that I cannot bear to see a statue without colour,’ and ‘Whatever the Greeks did was right.’

Gibson remained in Rome during the political agitations of 1847–9, not without personal danger. On the approach of the French army he retired with his brother Benjamin to Lucca, returning in time to see the pope re-enter the city. In 1850 he came to England to model the statue of the queen for the houses of parliament (prince's chamber), which with its noble figures of Justice and Clemency was in hand for five years. He also took five years to complete for Mr. Preston the celebrated statue of Venus, known as ‘The Tinted Venus.’ This was a replica of a statue (uncoloured) which he had executed for Mr. John Neeld, shortly after his return from Lucca to Rome. He describes it as ‘the most carefully laboured work I ever executed, for I wrought the forms up to the highest standard of the ideal. The expression I endeavoured to give my Venus was that spiritual elevation of character which results from purity and sweetness, combined with an air of unaffected dignity and grace. I took the liberty to decorate it in a fashion unprecedented in modern times. I tinted the flesh like warm ivory, scarcely red, the eyes blue, the hair blond, and the net which contains the hair, golden.’ He became almost as enamoured of this statue as Pygmalion of Galatea. ‘At moments,’ he wrote, ‘I forgot that I was gazing at my own production; there I sat before her, long and often. How was I ever to part with her?’ He was at last compelled to give her up, by the remonstrances of Mrs. Preston, four years after the statue was completed. This ‘Venus,’ with Lady Marian Alford's ‘Pandora,’ and Mr. Holford's ‘Cupid,’ all coloured, were exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862.

On 13 Aug. 1851 Gibson lost his youngest brother Benjamin, who died at Lucca, aged 40. The two brothers had long lived together, and Benjamin, from his superior education, had served as ‘classical dictionary.’ Benjamin Gibson wrote several monographs on classical subjects for English antiquarian publications (see Gent. Mag. 1851, ii. 552). In 1853 Gibson won a new friend in the American sculptress, Miss Hosmer, whom he instructed gratuitously. He was amply repaid by her ‘bright and helpful companionship.’ He spent many summers at Innsbruck, and of later years in England and Switzerland, or the Tyrol. In his journeys he was absolutely dependent on some devoted companion. Living in the heaven of his art, he had no time to devote to sublunary matters, and was as guileless, and in many things as helpless, as a child. He forgot invitations, posted letters without addresses, got out at wrong stations, lost his luggage. Once when asked why he took with him three packages, one of which was never opened, he replied, ‘The Greeks had a great respect for the number three—yes, the Greeks, for the number three.’ Miss Hosmer said, ‘He is a god in his studio, but God help him out of it!’

Gibson was consulted about the Albert Memorial, which of course he wished to be entirely ‘classical,’ and declined to execute the ‘Group of Europe,’ as he could not winter in England. His subsequent offer to execute it in Rome came too late. In 1862 he modelled a bas-relief of ‘Christ blessing little Children’ for Mr. Sandbach, his first and only subject from the scriptures. He persevered in spite of misgivings as to his power of expressing the divine through the human, and succeeded better than might have been expected. For some years before his death his health had failed, and his pure and happy life came to an end at Rome on 27 Jan. 1866. This life cannot be better described than in his own words: ‘I worked on all my days happily, and with ever new pleasure, avoiding evil, and with a calm soul—making images, not for worship, but for the love of the beautiful.’

Gibson may be said to have been the last and one of the best of the ‘old school’ of European sculpture, based on the teaching of Winckelmann, and carrying out strictly the ‘purist’ view of sculpture as the embodiment of abstract ideas in beautiful form. He was not, and did not wish to be, original. ‘It is the desire of novelty that destroys pure taste,’ he said. He studied from nature incessantly, but ever strove to treat her in the manner of the Greeks. He once expressed an opinion that Pheidias would have said of Michael Angelo, ‘Here is a most clever and wonderful sculptor, but a barbarian.’ He refused to execute the statues of Huskisson and Sir Robert Peel (Westminster Abbey) unless he was allowed to drape them classically. He said: ‘The human figure concealed under a frock coat and trousers is not a fit subject for sculpture. I would rather avoid contemplating such objects.’ It was not to be expected that sculpture executed with strict regard for such strict principles should be ‘popular’ in England in Gibson's time, but there was little excuse for the abuse which the press poured on many of his finest works. They were always pure in sentiment, refined in form, and executed with perfect skill. His brother artists felt and recognised his merit, and he had always a cultivated circle of admirers who smoothed the way of life for him by affectionate companionship and plentiful employment. He died worth 32,000l., which (with the exception of a few small legacies) he left, with the contents of his studio, to the Royal Academy. There, in a room specially devoted to them, may be seen the original sketches and casts of all his principal works, besides a few works in marble. Not the least beautiful, and certainly, except the ‘Hunter,’ the most spirited of his works, are some of his bas-reliefs, as ‘The Hours leading the Horses of the Sun,’ and ‘Phaeton driving the Chariot of the Sun,’ executed for Lord Fitzwilliam.

[Life of John Gibson, R.A., containing his Autobiography, and edited by Lady Eastlake; Redgrave's Dict.]

C. M.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.134
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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280 ii 11 Gibson, John (1790-1866): for he won read John Gibson won